Helen Storey mixing science with fashion

A DRESS depicting a female spinal column, a hat that shows a heart tube forming and a frock that explores the functioning of the lungs.

Primitive Streak dress (left) and spinal column dress by Helen Storey

A DRESS depicting a female spinal column, a hat that shows a heart tube forming and a frock that explores the functioning of the lungs. Primitive Streak is a fashion collection with a difference.

The brainchild of former Designer of the Year Professor Helen Storey and her scientist sister Kate, it is a groundbreaking cocktail of high fashion and embryology with 27 dresses which elucidate key stages in the first 1,000 hours of human life.

This week sees ten of these key pieces with two new designs dedicated to the development of the embryonic lung head to the North East as part of the Newcastle Science Fest’ 2011.

Primitive Streak will also see an exclusive unveiling of Helen’s new work; the World’s First Air Purifying dress and Field of Jeans, a world-first which will see a display of denim incorporating catalytic properties to help purify air.

Helen is a former Innovative Designer of the Year who has worked with renowned fashion designer Valentino and had her own fashion label for which she was nominated for the British Designer Of The Year title by The British Fashion Council.

Since the mid-90s, the designer has been drawn towards the world of scientific research, which has culminated in projects exploring biology, neuroscience and chemistry.

In 1997, the Wellcome Trust initiative ‘Sci/Art’, promoting partnerships between science and art, prompted Storey’s first project that combined these disciplines. Alongside her sister Kate, a developmental biologist at Oxford University, Storey created ‘Primitive Streak’ – 27 pieces of textiles and dress that take the viewer through the first 1,000 hours of human life, from fertilisation to human form.

Helen says: “Primitive Streak came at a time in my life when I had just stopped commercial fashion and I was looking for a new way to stretch myself while using the knowledge I had gained along the way as a fashion designer.

“An invitation came via my sister Kate who was at Oxford University from the Wellcome Trust who were inviting artists and scientists to get together to see if art could bring to life a complex piece of biology in a way the public would understand.

“Kate’s area of expertise covers the first 1,000 hours of human life. We decided to join forces. The trust said it was a crazy idea but a good idea. There was no precedence, we were the first people to do it.”

Primitive Streak has since gone on to win two awards, has toured in seven countries since 1997 and has been seen by five million people.

It will be seen in the North East for the first time this month during Science Fest ’11. Newcastle Central Library will play host to the Primitive Streak lung dress on March 4 until April 11.

From March 15 to April 11, 11 of the dresses from the collection, including the new lung dress will be at the Centre for Life with a preview evening on the 14th which will include a Q&A with Helen and Kate.

The spinal column dress sees the female spine cast in resin and hand- plated with aluminium foil and has 8,000 fibre optic endings sealed into a one-inch light source and fed through the spine at irregular intervals. The fibres represent the nerve processes throughout the body.

Two new additions to the Primitive Streak collection, exploring the science behind the development and function of the lungs, will be seen for the first time.

The sisters have explored the extraordinary structure of the lung and the very fine cellular membranes that exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide from the air to the blood hidden deep inside the body.

The new works incorporate bespoke textiles to evoke the feel and function of our respiratory surfaces. The ‘Lung Dresses’ will raise the view that we take our lungs for granted and are unable to see the effects of smoke or particles that we inhale until it is too late.

“They are trying to bring to life the development of the human lung,” explains Helen. “It is a dress full of little narratives. It’s fascinating and I am learning myself all the time.

“The collection isn’t just about biology, it’s also about how it translates into form. Fashion changes every six months and it’s mainly for the elite. Primitive Streak seems to have lasted the test of time, because it’s not just fashion. The content is universal. You may like both subjects but not really understand them.

“The air-purifying dress will be in Newcastle. We have applied a catalyst to the clothing which actively purifies the air. Catalytic Clothing has been a project working with Professor Tony Ryan at the University of Sheffield.

“Our ambition is that we will be able to deliver it into people’s laundry so that everyone washing their clothes will purify the air. We think it is going to have an effect on respiratory health. Child asthma is a very serious condition and we spend £8bn a year on respiratory disease.

“There is a lot we can do with regard to the personal health of individuals.”

The dress called Herself, an exquisite floor-length couture dress, will be shown in the window of King’s Gate at Newcastle University accompanied by a newly- commissioned film.

Field of Jeans will be placed on a grassy area near Northern Stage.

Helen says: “We thought we would take a uniform which is universal around the world so we catalyzed jeans.

“They will be purifying air as they stand in rows. For the first time we will be asking the public for their opinions on technology that is yet to come. The whole process is very innovative.”

For information, visit www.newcastlesciencefest.co.uk For details about the display at the Centre of Life call 0191 243 8210, or visit www.life.org.uk

It is a dress full of little narratives. It’s fascinating and I am learning myself all the time


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